With the tragic death of Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, Leicester City didn’t just lose an owner, English football lost a figure who rewrote the rulebook of the sport
In August 2008 “Big” Phil Scolari was unveiled to the English media as Chelsea’s manager at their training ground in Surrey.
The Brazilian, then still best known for leading his country to the 2002 World Cup, caused a wave of unintentional laughter to break out when he was asked who he thought Chelsea’s rivals were for the title that year.
“MAN-chester,” he began in his heavy Brazilian accent, emphasising the first syllable in every word. He meant United. “ARS-en-al. LEAVE-air-pool.” Nothing unusual so far.
“MAN-chester SEE-TEE,” he went on, as the assorted hacks began looking at each other. “TOTT-en-hhham. PORTS-mouth.”
City? Tottenham? Portsmouth? Did this man’s stairs go all the way up to his loft? Did he not realise the EPL was a cartel?
The only reason the English top flight was marginally more interesting than its Spanish counterpart was that there were four possible winners instead of two.
When Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski brought out “Soccernomics” a year later, the prognosis was even bleaker, because it seemed to confirm what everyone had long suspected. To surmise: money bought success in club football and as the rich clubs grew disproportionately wealthier, the chances of teams like Blackburn, Nottingham Forest or Derby County ever winning the league ever again, were close to zero.
Leicester City breaking the rules
The cartel theory held for another six seasons. A team could break in, like Manchester City, or drop out, like Arsenal, but only through mass investment or the lack of it.
Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha took over Leicester in 2010, wiped out their debts and set them the achievable goal of getting to the Premier League and staying there, but when they were quoted at 5000-1 to win the title at the start of the 2015-16 the odds seemed miserly. Their squad was full of apparently unremarkable journeymen, cast in the image of manager Claudio Ranieiri.
What followed is widely seen as a modern-day miracle. Leicester didn’t fluke the title, they won by 10 points, thanks to a series of statistically unlikely events that when combined did indeed seem miraculous.
Every member of the cartel had a bad season. City and United were fourth and fifth respectively, on 66 points. The reigning champions, Chelsea, tanked completely under Jose Mourinho and ended up in 10th.
An unstoppable run for the Foxes
Of the fringe contenders, Liverpool, in a “transitional” phase (28 years and counting) came eighth. Arsenal’s challenge lasted until March but collapsed due to Arsene Wenger’s devotion to the mythical “Arsenal way” while Tottenham somehow managed to achieve peak Tottenham by finishing third in a two-horse race.
By focusing on the shortcomings of these “bigger” clubs, however, there’s a risk of casually dismissing Leicester’s greatness that season. They lost only three times in the league and built momentum on the back of Jamie Vardy scoring in 12 consecutive games.
His run ended on the day Leicester went top for the first time, with a 3-0 win over Swansea, but at this point almost everyone assumed they would fall away. On February 6th, however, Leicester went to the Etihad and outplayed a Manchester City side still expected to make a late surge, to win 3-1. This was the moment the impossible became merely improbable. When Tottenham blew a 2-0 lead to draw with Chelsea on May 2nd it became reality. Leicester were uncatchable.
A couple of months after the season ended, a Leicester-supporting relative described to me the tension he’d felt during the run in. “The weird thing is I’d almost stopped enjoying it,” he said. “I was just shaking so much during every game I wasn’t sure I could stand it. I’d happily take a comfortable 14th place this season and live without the stress, but it was still one of the happiest days of my life.”
Srivaddhanaprabha gave Leicester something of unquantifiable value. For one season at least he banished the cynicism around the Premier League. And on a personal note he made me feel guilty for laughing at Phil Scolari’s idea that a team like Portsmouth might ever win the league.